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Thousands Of Refugees Returning To Syria End Up Detained, Imprisoned, Tortured


As the war in Syria winds down, President Bashar al-Assad is calling on the millions of Syrians who have fled to return home.


PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: Of course they can come back without any action taken from the government against them. We would like - we want people to come back to Syria.

SHAPIRO: Activists and human rights workers doubt Assad's words. They say many Syrians who have returned to areas under his control are being detained, imprisoned and often tortured. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

ABU EZ: (Foreign language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The Syrian refugee who comes to our bureau in Beirut late one night is pale from too much time spent indoors. These days, he rarely ventures out. He's skinny, in his 20s and only wants us to refer to him by his nickname, Abu Ez (ph). Syrians like him are no longer welcome in Lebanon.

ABU EZ: (Foreign language spoken) If I get stopped at any checkpoint, I might be deported.

SHERLOCK: Abu Ez knows too well the dangers of returning to Assad's Syria or even being identified for this piece. He won't go back home, not after what happened to his brother-in-law.

ABU EZ: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Abu Ez's brother-in-law, Abu Ammar (ph) - we won't use his full name - was a rebel fighter in the early days of the war. Then he fled to Idlib, which is still under rebel control. But he hated being so far away from his family in Homs.

ABU EZ: (Through interpreter) He sent me messages telling me about how people are living in tents. And the tents are so close to one another that his neighbors can hear everything he says.

SHERLOCK: So, Abu Ez says, his brother-in-law decided to contact an intermediary for the regime. The government has set up reconciliation committees to offer amnesty to opposition activists and fighters. Abu Ammar returned to Homs and obtained a document.

ABU EZ: (Through interpreter) The document said that everything is OK, that everything from his past is forgotten. But there's nothing that is forgotten in Syria.

SHERLOCK: Reunited with his wife and four children, Abu Ammar worked to rebuild the bakery that had been his business before the war. He was so happy to be back. The reconciliation process works, Abu Ammar told his brother-in-law Abu Ez.

ABU EZ: (Through interpreter) He really felt safe. He told me with confidence, you should return and finish your studies and maybe even join the police or military.

SHERLOCK: This was the last time they talked. Ten days later, Abu Ez received a message telling him that his brother-in-law had been arrested. Security forces had stormed his home. A helicopter hovered overhead.

ABU EZ: (Through interpreter) At first, my sister refused to tell me about it. She was afraid the phone was tapped. She didn't want to say the regime took him. Eventually, she admitted some men had put him in a car.

SHERLOCK: Days passed, then weeks. Now it's been almost a year with no news.

ABU EZ: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Abu Ez says his sister and family in Homs are too afraid to even go and ask the government where Abu Ammar is. They also fear arrest. This story is typical of the testimony being heard by Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Syria researcher who spent months gathering data on people returning to regime-held areas. She says all kinds of people are being detained all over the country.

ELIZABETH TSURKOV: They're former activists, former members of local councils, doctors who worked in opposition-run hospitals. And they are sometimes commanders of rebels who have gone through reconciliation with the regime.

SHERLOCK: Some of the detained are falsely accused of rebel connections. In all, she says, at least a thousand people who thought they'd reconciled with the regime have disappeared. Abu Ez watches all this from Lebanon. Despite the insecurity and harassment in Lebanon, he says he has no choice but to stay here. And his advice to fellow Syrians returning home?

ABU EZ: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "If you go back, you're gambling with your life," he says. "You're playing with fire."

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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